Five Questions with Casey: Nate Balis on What’s Next for Juvenile Justice Reforms

Posted September 29, 2015
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog fivequestionsbalis 2015

With more than 15 years of expe­ri­ence in juve­nile jus­tice, social pol­i­cy and sys­tem reform, Nate Balis directs the Foun­da­tion’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group. We sat down with Balis as his team launch­es a three-day con­fer­ence for more than 900 juve­nile jus­tice reform­ers involved with the Foundation’s Juve­nile Deten­tion Alter­na­tives Ini­tia­tive (JDAI)

Q1. One year into your tenure as direc­tor of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group, can you give us your impres­sions about the cur­rent sta­tus and the future of JDAI

I tend to think about JDAI from two angles. First, I appre­ci­ate JDAI as a mature ini­tia­tive that has con­tin­ued to grow to the point where safe­ly reduc­ing the use of secure deten­tion is now very much in the main­stream of juve­nile jus­tice. That rep­re­sents a huge achieve­ment for JDAI. Also, I am con­tin­u­ous­ly remind­ed that the learn­ing curve of JDAI nev­er ends. At this year’s con­fer­ence, for instance, we are intro­duc­ing a new prac­tice guide for work­ing with LGBT youth in the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, and we will soon be pro­duc­ing a prac­tice guide on engag­ing law enforce­ment in deten­tion reform. I think this com­mit­ment to con­tin­u­ous improve­ment explains why JDAI sites and JDAI part­ners are so often at the fore­front of promis­ing devel­op­ments in the juve­nile jus­tice field nationwide.

At the same time, when we peek under the hood of JDAI, we see a lot of things that we wish were bet­ter. We see results that should be deep­er. We see core strate­gies that seem to be con­sid­ered as option­al. We see places that have lost momen­tum and are not sure how to get it back. In short, we see an ini­tia­tive that in many ways is thriv­ing, and in oth­er ways needs new life. That is why we are com­mit­ted as a Foun­da­tion to pro­vid­ing JDAI sites the sup­port they need to con­tin­ue mak­ing mean­ing­ful progress in their core deten­tion reform efforts. 

Q2. Since 2012, Casey has been work­ing with a num­ber of local sites and a few states to reduce their reliance on com­mit­ments. Can you tell us briefly about these deep end efforts? 

So far, the deep end work has been both incred­i­bly chal­leng­ing and extreme­ly promis­ing. Com­pared with deten­tion reform, the chal­lenges of reduc­ing youth incar­cer­a­tion are much more com­plex, involv­ing many mov­ing parts, more play­ers and more daunt­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties. After all, deten­tion is – by design – a short-term inter­ven­tion with a lim­it­ed pur­pose. It ensures that young peo­ple appear at their sched­uled court dates with min­i­mum dis­rup­tion to their lives and to pub­lic safe­ty. The deep end work, by con­trast, address­es the full breadth of young people’s needs. It focus­es on long-term behav­ior change and youth devel­op­ment. It’s a much heav­ier lift. Still, we are find­ing that many of the core prin­ci­ples of JDAI, and many of the skills and habits fos­tered in JDAI — col­lab­o­ra­tion, the use of data, the impor­tance of dis­ag­gre­gat­ing data and address­ing dis­par­i­ties — are read­i­ly applic­a­ble to the deep end work. So, we have a ton of learn­ing to do, but we’re build­ing from a sol­id foundation.

Q3. Recent­ly, Casey Pres­i­dent Patrick McCarthy gave a TEDx talk call­ing for the clo­sure of all youth pris­ons. What does that mean for JDAI sites?

This talk focused on large state-oper­at­ed and ‑con­tract­ed facil­i­ties that are ware­hous­ing kids — facil­i­ties root­ed in a prison mod­el that we know has been total­ly inef­fec­tive and often abu­sive to kids in cus­tody. Fur­ther, we don’t see any con­tra­dic­tion between elim­i­nat­ing the youth prison mod­el and rec­og­niz­ing that some high-risk young peo­ple need to be held in secure set­tings for some peri­od of time. The crit­i­cal point is that when young peo­ple are removed from their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, they should not be placed in insti­tu­tions ori­ent­ed toward pun­ish­ing them fur­ther. Rather, they should go to facil­i­ties ded­i­cat­ed to sup­port­ing their devel­op­ment and chang­ing their think­ing and behav­ior. We’ve seen it again and again: the best results come by pro­vid­ing youth with pos­i­tive and ther­a­peu­tic experiences. 

Q4. Can you tell us more about the Juve­nile Jus­tice Strat­e­gy Group’s work on pro­ba­tion reform? 

Pro­ba­tion has always been part of our deten­tion reform focus. But, in the deep end work, pro­ba­tion is the essen­tial play­er in many ways. It’s the largest alter­na­tive to out-of-home place­ment in every JDAI juris­dic­tion, and it often serves as the gate­way to out-of-home place­ment for young peo­ple who vio­late the terms of pro­ba­tion or who oth­er­wise fail while on probation. 

Despite probation’s cen­tral role, how­ev­er, we find huge vari­a­tion in pro­ba­tion prac­tices from one sys­tem to the next and from pro­ba­tion offi­cer to pro­ba­tion offi­cer. Pro­ba­tion should afford young peo­ple an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn how to make bet­ter deci­sions and to devel­op health­i­er atti­tudes and behav­ioral habits. So, we want to take a deep, crit­i­cal look at pro­ba­tion and its role in the juve­nile jus­tice system. 

Q5. Any­thing else you can tell us about your first year as JJSG Direc­tor? What stands out in your mind?

One thing that stands out is that this has been an unbe­liev­able year for jus­tice pol­i­cy. The issues peo­ple in the JDAI net­work talk about every day are all of a sud­den being dis­cussed in liv­ing rooms across Amer­i­ca. I’ve been reflect­ing on what this means for JDAI, and one of the things I see is a dan­ger of complacency.

We have arrived at a crit­i­cal junc­ture for the his­to­ry of our field, and I am deter­mined to do every­thing pos­si­ble in this piv­otal moment to make sure that the progress we achieve in jus­tice pol­i­cy reform will mea­sure up to what we all know is needed.

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